Getting real

Let's assume that everyone on all sides of the affirmative-action debate is speaking in good faith. It makes the discussion so much more pleasant.

What we are all after is the famous level playing field. We may differ on how to get there, but that doesn't automatically mean that some of us are racists or that others of us are insisting on special preferences.

I believe we can work out public policies--better than the ones we have now--that get us closer to the level playing field. But we need to give ourselves some reality checks before we start trying to figure out how to shape them.

One common mistake in this debate is to assume that scrapping affirmative action will move us closer to a meritocracy. Of course, anyone who thinks about it for a minute knows that's piffle. The boss' son, Kennedys applying to Harvard, good ol' boys, beautiful women, people who were in the "right" fraternities and sororities--the list of what gives one person an edge over another is almost endless.

In certain jobs, guys with big muscles, women with pleasant voices, a military service record, a knack for math, or having tiny hands constitute an edge. On the whole, bright people start out with an advantage over dumb people--no matter how decent Forrest Gump may be--and those of cheerful character are usually preferred over grouches.

In fact, it's hard to think of any workplace in all our bright and shining land where merit alone gets you ahead. First, you have to define merit. And if there is some "objective" test--say, a civil-service exam--who really believes that a geek with a 97 on the test will make a better sewer supervisor than a guy with common sense and a 96?

If one salesperson racks up $1 million a year by spouting bull but never has a return customer, is he a better salesperson than a guy who totals only $500,000 but has loyal customers?

So our first challenge is to get real before we go off on this subject. The second is to beware of unintended consequences, because they're always lurking out there. An admissions officer at the University of California, Berkeley, who must remain nameless for obvious reasons, recently told me what would happen if affirmative action didn't exist at that school: "We have 20,000 undergraduates: we'd end up with 19,000 very bright Asians, and 1,000 very bright Jews." Which is pretty funny, when you think about it.

The next point we need to admit, no matter what we think should be done about it, is that Discrimination Lives. Yes, we have a substantial black middle class now--in part, thanks to affirmative action. And yes, affirmative action sometimes unfairly assists the black middle class at the expense of poor black folks and, sometimes, of white folks.

But any local TV station on a slow news day can always fill a time slot with a discrimination story: send an attractive, young black couple to rent an apartment and watch the manager announce that the advertised apartment has "just been rented." Ten minutes later, send in an attractive, young white couple and watch them get the apartment. It happens every day and is multiplied a thousand times in different ways, legal or not.

President Clinton's plans for fixing federal affirmative-action programs, particularly in relation to contracts and procurement, are sensible and moderate. Weeding out these shysters who use minorities and women as fronts for white-owned businesses will be a genuine public service. The "pass-throughs," where minority- and women-owned businesses get contracts and just pass them along to others, is another rip-off that needs to be stopped.

Doctors who rip off Medicaid, farmers who rip off the subsidy programs, and defense contractors who rip off the Pentagon all cost us a lot more money. That's why I believe in Perpetual Reform. In my observation, no matter how we fix the laws to get a level playing field, within 10 years, some set of SOBs will have figured out how to take special advantage of them--usually those with the most money already. So we just have to keep fixing them.

What we don't need is politicians who play us off against one another for their own gain.

We're all aware of the assumption that Social Security is going to hell in a handbasket.

This assumption is based on projections the system's trustees made in their annual report. Their projection is, in turn, based on the assumption that the economy will grow an average of 1.5 percent (after inflation) for the next 75 years.

As Doug Henwood points out in the Left Business Observer, this is precisely half the rate at which the economy has grown for the past 75 years; even the 1930s saw a faster growth rate.

Assume that the economy grows at a below-average 2.2 percent for the next 75 years, and Social Security is in no trouble at all. Assume that it grows at a still-below-average 2.5 percent, and the system will be running a surplus.

Isn't that nice?
I have long believed that fear is the most dangerous factor in politics.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins